School jobs to be slashed

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2011 - 8:47 PM

The end of federal stimulus funding will mean 167 layoffs in St. Paul, 80 in Minneapolis, more elsewhere.

When St. Paul schools received $58 million in stimulus money from the federal government in the fall of 2009, the district beefed up its workforce with dozens of teachers, instructional coaches and counselors in an effort to reduce budget shortfalls and raise academic achievement for special needs, impoverished and minority students.

That money, a two-year appropriation, ended with the last day of school this spring. On Tuesday, the school board is expected to approve layoffs of 167 employees whose salaries were paid with the money.

A similar situation is unfolding in Minneapolis, where more than 80 public schools employees will lose their jobs in coming months, and in other metro area districts.

School districts defend their spending of short-term stimulus money for jobs despite a warning from the U.S. Department of Education in 2009 that doing so could cause a "funding cliff" where millions of dollars would abruptly disappear if not invested wisely. Schools were advised to invest in longer-term benefits for student learning.

"A really shrewd person would say, 'OK, the economy is tanking, the feds are helping us out but let's take a look at the next three years,'" said Allan Odden, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin who has spent 35 years researching national K-12 funding. Instead, huge deficits left many school districts nationwide fixing budget shortages rather than thinking more strategically, he said.

St. Paul administrators, who this year will face a $25 million budget deficit, say they told the school board and the public how the federal money would be used and that most of it would expire in the current budget year. They said they made sure employees whose salaries were funded with stimulus dollars knew their positions were temporary.

"We used the funds in a way that we're very confident matches up with the priorities of the federal government and of the district," said Matt Mohs, the director of Title I and funded programs for the district. "At the end of the day, it's people we need to educate our students."

The teachers union is pleased that people were put to work, even if temporarily.

"I know the district was really careful to make sure that whoever went into terminal stimulus positions would have some talent and expertise to contribute to the district afterward," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the district's teachers union president.

Two years ago the federal government gave $100 billion to school districts nationwide as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The aid was distributed based on need and student population.

St. Paul, a district with 38,000 students, received $58 million. Of that total, $29.1 million came through the state to make up for money it could not provide that year, $18.1 million was given to invest in Title I programs or improve the achievement of the disadvantaged, and $10.8 million was for special education.

The St. Paul district filled or retained what would equate to 242 jobs including 146 teachers, 40 education assistants, 12 counselors and seven nurses.

The district also jump-started several professional development programs.

In Minneapolis, the school district spent about $70 million in stimulus funds the past two school years to offset budget cuts and provide smaller class sizes, tutoring and reading support for struggling students. The money funded more than 300 full- and part-time jobs in 2009-10 and close to 200 this past school year.

In the Anoka-Hennepin school district, almost $12 million in stimulus funds paid for such things as student data tracking programs and training on how to evaluate school programs. Those were one-time costs that didn't leave the district stuck with ongoing expenses.

No revenue rebound

The problem in Minnesota and elsewhere is that federal and local governments thought property values would produce more tax revenue for schools, Odden said.

"The stimulus was big enough to prevent a catastrophe in 2009 and 2010 and the thought was that state and local dollars would come roaring back to compensate the loss of stimulus," Odden said. "State and local dollars did come back but not at a rate to cover the stimulus."

Tim Caskey, executive director of St. Paul schools' human resources department, said it's too early to determine how the layoffs will affect the district. In addition to the stimulus jobs, the district will also have to cut 137 other jobs.

"We maintain our commitment to most of the things we invested in," he said.

Staff writers Corey Mitchell, Norm Draper and Sarah Lemagie contributed to this report. Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib
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